Arthur Rimbaud has long been a name with which to conjure, a rebellious, boisterous Symbolist and a forerunner of Surrealism. All of his known poems were written before he reached the age of twenty-one. From Europe and poetry, he wandered into Africa, adventure, and business. He died at the age of thirty-nine, when his reputation as a poet was just beginning to grow. Had his work been mediocre, he would still be a symbol of the devouring power of poetry. His work was strong, surprising, and aggressive, however, inspiring such diverse writers as André Breton and Paul Claudel. Few of the numerous studies devoted to him are biographical. Among the biographies, many are bound to one overriding critical theory, all come up against the seeming dichotomy of Rimbaud’s life: The rebellious poet and seer has attracted the most attention, the African trader the least.
In Rimbaud, Pierre Petitfils has chosen to give equal weight to both periods of his subject’s life. He makes no break between the “two Rimbauds” and argues that there is only one individual to be studied and understood. Petitfils steers clear of politicized literary schools. In addition, he does not attempt to impose a unifying literary theme but tries to give as full and accurate an account as possible of the events of Rimbaud’s life and the people about him. To this end, he employs an impressive array of documentation, personal correspondence, poems written by Rimbaud and his literary contacts, and a select group of portraits and photographs of Rimbaud, his circle, and their surroundings. Petitfils is a lifelong student of Rimbaud, with many publications, including an earlier biography of Rimbaud in collaboration with Henri Matarasso (La Vie de Arthur Rimbaud, 1962) and two critical bibliographies (L’uvre et le visage d’Arthur Rimbaud, 1949, and Rimbaud au fil des ans, 1984). He is also the author of a biography of Paul Verlaine (Album Verlaine, 1981). The only other major biography of Rimbaud available in English is Rimbaud by Enid Starkie (1947). Petitfils’ study brings a completely different method and a greatly expanded body of information to bear upon the life of this influential poet.
Petitfils chooses to begin his work with a landscape, the Ardennes countryside and its twin towns of Charleville and Mézières. He often brings the reader back to this countryside in his consideration of the poet’s works and reactions to the various environments of later years. Petitfils also studies Rimbaud’s family background in portraits of his parents. Vitalie Cuif was a farmer’s daughter; Frédéric Rimbaud was a professional soldier, some ten years her elder. He was a veteran of African campaigns, an impatient man with an appetite for wandering, intelligent and fond of writing. She was devout, thrifty, conscientious to a fault. Their characters foreshadow that of their second son, Jean-Nicolas-Arthur, born October 20, 1854. It is partly through these inherited qualities that Petitfils reconciles the disparate aspects of Rimbaud’s character and life. The marriage broke down by Arthur’s sixth birthday. Frédéric never contacted his four children again, and Vitalie’s influence was the most pervasive. It is against the dour figure of “La Mère Rimbe” that Arthur would direct his early rebellion. Petitfils details Rimbaud’s school life and introduces the reader to his early friends, Ernest Delahaye, for many years a confidant, and Georges Izambard, both professor and friend. In school Rimbaud, a prize pupil, tasted freedom from his mother and the power of his gift with words.
As Rimbaud begins to leave a written record, Petitfils refers to it liberally, but texts appear only to illuminate moments in Rimbaud’s life. Equal importance is given to juvenilia, Latin verse, scribbles from exercise books, and the first French-language poems. Petitfils follows a rigorous chronology, particularly important in his discussion of the genesis and recopying of various texts of Rimbaud’s literary work. A case in point is the placement of Une Saison en enfer (A Season in Hell, 1932) in relation to Rimbaud’s other works. Tradition interprets this work as a final farewell to literature. Petitfils dates its composition to two periods, the first in London with Verlaine (from late 1872...
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